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Building Community, the Brooklyn Way

Building Community, the Brooklyn Way

Joseph Sciorra (May 31, 2010)
Joseph Sciorra
KAVES, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, April 14, 2010.

Meet KAVES, band leader, tattoo artist, community activist.


Back in April, I attended a jumpin’ party at “Brooklyn Made Tattoo” in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The proprietor KAVES aka Michael McLeer (“mezza Irishese” as we used to say before we all learned “good Italian”) threw the shindig to launch a new line of “Made in Brooklyn” Pony sneakers.

I’ve been following KAVES’ career as part of my research on hip hop’s Italian-American component. He was a subway writer back in the day who, with his brother Adam aka ADM, went on to form the rap-rock group, the Lordz of Brooklyn, which morphed in to the rock-rap group, The Lordz. The band’s various incarnations have been inspired by the ideal of Italian Brooklyn, referencing 1950s greasers, corner boys, and Bay Ridge’s own cinematic personification, Tony Manero, with a heavy dose of hip hop. The group’s iconography is certifiable old school, with a mélange of sleeveless T-shirts, fedoras, stickball bats, and tailfin Cadillacs. 

In 2008, KAVES opened his clothing shop “Made in Brooklyn” at 9303 3rd Avenue, and the following year he opened the tattoo parlor around the corner at 312 93rd Street. “Brooklyn Made Tattoo” evokes the cultural landscape of “the old neighborhood” infused with hip hop’s sentimental temporality of “back in the day.”
("The Brooklyn Way" reality show on Fuse TV)

The tattoo parlor was a former Greek-American social club that KAVES redesigned to maintain that third place (neither home nor work) feel of the local hangout. It is outfitted with vintage barber chairs (hair cuts will be available this month), a jukebox spinning 45 rpm records, and wall decorations that include a Jimmy Roselli LP and classic tattoo flash. The place conjures the beguiling realm of front stoops, block parties, candy stores, and other working-class urban landmarks on the mythic topography of the Italian imaginary. 

The evocation of the past has become a discernible cultural strategy for Italian Americans as the best of expressive culture is adapated by filtering out the negative. (See “Sunday dinners” at Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi’s “Torrisi Italian Specialties” shop and restaurant in that Manhattan location once known as Little Italy.) KAVES’ vision of old-school Brooklyn is not that of the racist turf battles that plagued New York up until the 1980s, but one that imagines a recalibrated whiteness tied to those positive attributes of the local and the global inclusiveness of hip hopIt’s the place where The Honeymooners meets Grandmaster Flash, where Goodfellas bumps up against Biggie Smalls. This was apparent in the great mix of people attending the early spring party.

The nostaglia that fuels KAVES looks to the future while referencing the past.  His entrepreneurial enterprise is one dedicated to the neighborhood where he lives and his kids go to school. “I’m not leaving just to have more space in the suburbs or because, like some say, now there are Asians and Muslims living here. I’m staying to build my neighborhood.” 

This 21st century community-building will be in evidence again on June 6th when “Brooklyn Made Tattoo” becomes a stop on the “Vroom Vroom Vespa Acoustic Tour,” when musicians Greg Attonito and Shanti Wintergate come to Brooklyn. Bay Ridge, baby!

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